Dir: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers. Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett. PG,100 mins
Pixar has already tackled some of life’s great questions: why do we feel the emotions we feel? Is there life after death? Could a rat cook a three-course meal? Their latest, Soul, cuts right to the chase. Why not embrace, head-on, the biggest mystery there is: life itself? What, after all, is the point of all this living? The studio are certainly up for the challenge. That won’t surprise anyone. But not only does Soul live up to Pixar’s own impossibly high standards, it represents the very best the studio has to offer: beauty, humour, heart, a gut-punch of an existential crisis. The children will laugh and cheer; the adults will sob until their muscles ache.
The film’s soul-searching (ahem) comes courtesy of two very different individuals: the first is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a man who’s placed jazz music at the very centre of his existence. It’s all he talks about. It’s all he thinks about it. And life, for him, will only have purpose once he hits the big time. For now, he’s languishing in mediocrity, working as a high-school band teacher – his students only capable of creating a discordant tangle of out-of-tune notes, droning yawns, and the rhythmic tapping of phone screens. One day, Joe finally gets his big shot. Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a jazz hero, is in sudden need of a pianist. As soon as he gets the news, he falls into a manhole and dies. Oh well.
His soul ends up, as all souls do, on an escalator to The Great Beyond. A crisp, enveloping darkness melts into a great ball of light, the entrance to whatever lies beyond life. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score pulsates gently in the background. Think of this sequence as the kid-friendly answer to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But Joe believes his life is only just getting started. He has to get back to his body and, in his struggle to get free, ends up in a place called The Great Before. It’s here he meets 22 (Tina Fey, delightfully irritating), a soul who has yet to inhabit a body, stubbornly refusing to leave the You Seminar. It’s the place where souls learn and develop their personalities and, with the help of accomplished mentors like Archimedes, Muhammad Ali and Marie Antoinette, are given the spark of inspiration needed to launch them into existence. 22, however, wants no part of it. She hasn’t for several millennia, despite everyone’s best efforts (she once made Mother Theresa cry).
Soul is also the story of two planes of existence. The You Seminar is a soft bed of candy colours and clouds – one of the most purely serene and beautiful places Pixar has ever imagined, as inhabited by bobble-headed infant souls and their cosmic caretakers, who have seemingly been inspired by Picasso’s famous light paintings. Joe’s schemes make him the target of one of these beings, Terry (Rachel House), The Great Beyond’s resident accountant. House, the film’s greatest comic gem, replicates the roles she played in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok – she’s a Terminator-like enforcer with her own catchphrase (“It’s Terry time”) and a steely determination that is repeatedly undone by her ineptitude.
The rest of the story takes place in New York City, which here becomes a breathtaking demonstration of the latest in Pixar’s computer wizardry. Not only is it a faithful recreation of a city bursting with life (one of its most notorious residents, the pizza rat, even makes a brief cameo), but of its people. Soul, in its celebration of all life has to offer, puts diversity, family, and community at its centre – it’s also, notably, the first of the animation studio’s films with a Black protagonist, even if a chunk of the film is spent with Joe’s soul, who’s rendered as a sort of humanoid blue blob.
As the physical and the metaphysical collide, Soul lands on something far more profound than the act of someone rediscovering their joie de vivre. It’s a chance for co-directors Pete Docter (who was also behind 2015’s thematically similar Inside Out) and Kemp Powers to seek out the truly radical. Their film confronts society’s capitalistic focus on individual success and talent, and the idea that our lives only have purpose if we are the best, or the most famous, or the most beloved. Instead, Soul wonders if we could seek out something more simple. What if the true joy of living is that we get to do it in the first place?